By Rana Askoul
In 2006, the US Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) chose the “all-decade team” on the occasion of the 10th season of the association. Composed of the most influential players, the team took into account elements such as sportsmanship, community service, leadership and contribution to the growth of women’s basketball.
The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was invited to deliver a keynote speech. It was at that time that she famously said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” As abrasive as that statement might be, it holds some realities that women face on a daily basis.
When I started my entrepreneurial venture a few years ago, I reached out to my network of colleagues, friends and contacts. I started with the women leaders I knew, because my project was centred around developing women leaders. Excited, I reached out to this group thinking we can collectively help other women leaders to advance. But my enthusiasm dissipated soon after, because a sizeable number of the women I contacted proved to be unsinterested and distrustful. Only a handful of them opened up to my cause and helped me further my connections and opportunities.
Initially, I questioned whether my venture made any sense. However, when I started dealing with male leaders on the same topic, more doors started to open.
It was a disturbing experience for a person like me who champions the value women bring to this world. I dismissed these thoughts, thinking that my experience has no connection with gender. That was until I met other women who reported similar experiences. These women were from different walks of life: corporate professionals, entrepreneurs and artists. The majority of them perceived women to be less helpful and more critical of other women.
I resolved to understand the reason behind such behaviour and attitudes, which led to me conducting research in “gender socialisation”. Simply put, this term refers to the way we socialise and raise boys and girls differently. Taking it to one extreme, this is basically how we pit one girl against another in beauty pageants, while we cheer on boys playing in a football team. It also has a lot to do with how girls are, to an extent, naturally inclined to compete for male attention to eventually win the superior mate. Some would argue that such behaviours and attitudes are naturally wired into men and women. I would not dismiss scientific facts that back these claims, but there is a lot that we do collectively to further intensify these dispositions. Therein lies the problem.
As we extrapolate the impact of gender socialisation into a professional setting, we see disengaged, uninterested and distrustful attitudes of some women towards other women. The opportunity to collaborate based on shared backgrounds and common interests is squandered because of such attitudes.
I have witnessed this phenomenon many times in my career in corporate human resources. The majority of women leaders would hesitate to unequivocally support talented women. Male leaders, on the other hand, consistently displayed a much larger appetite to champion and support male talent.
Our world has evolved from the hunter-gatherer state of affairs. No longer do I as a woman need a physically superior mate to fend off wild beasts. What we need is cooperation, collaboration and reciprocity. Today, we have more women participating in economic, social and political decision making. We need them to create harmony and balance.
This depends on many factors. Some of these factors have to do with men championing women’s causes. Other factors have to do with our social fabric.
However, the most important factors in my opinion are in the hands of women themselves. So for women out there who help other women, there is a special place in heaven for you.
Rana Askoul is a writer based in the UAE
On Twitter: @RanaAskoul